Latest Reviews
Tuesday
Nov262013

Frozen

It’s hard not to love Disney animation. For many decades now, they’ve captivated the hearts and minds of all ages with sweeping musical numbers, beautiful visuals and endless imagination. With heart and wit always seemingly at the center of each tale, their movies are timeless and will continue to be watched for many more generations to come. Their latest, “Frozen,” rests comfortably alongside the rest of Disney’s collection, even if it doesn’t quite reach the wonder of those that have come before.

Anna (Kristen Bell) is a spunky girl. She was always close to her sister, Elsa (Idina Menzel), as a child, but in their older years they’ve grown apart. This is because Elsa has powers of ice that she can’t control and when they were young, she accidentally harmed Anna, an event Anna no longer remembers. By distancing herself from her sister, she ensures she’ll never harm her again. However, Elsa is about to be made queen of her kingdom, which forces her to open up the castle doors to the people. This leads to a circumstance that reveals her powers, frightening the people and forcing her to rush off into the mountains. Determined to get her back, Anna jumps on horseback and rides away to find her, eventually enlisting the help of common man Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), his deer, Sven, and a magical snowman named Olaf (Josh Gad).

Just in terms of visuals, “Frozen” is a marvel. It’s absolutely beautiful to watch, perfectly capturing the aesthetic of a childlike imagination that mixes exaggerated views of reality with magic. With our technological advancements in animation, it has never been a better time to revert back to your childhood and enjoy an animated movie and this works as a perfect example of that. Its songs, too, are wonderful, echoing Disney’s 2010 hit, “Tangled.” Sung beautifully and written with care (with a few jokes thrown in the lyrics for good measure), combining them with the pleasing sights are sure to bring goose bumps to all but the hardest of cynics. In these ways and more, “Frozen” is a Disney movie in all the best ways.

Perhaps uncharacteristically of a Disney movie, however, is its surprisingly uneven story. The story itself is grand with neat ideas and real emotion (the opening, in particular, packs more emotional punches than most movies do in their entirety), but it breaks the cardinal sin of storytelling: it doesn’t follow its own rules. The most egregious example comes shortly after Elsa flees the kingdom. Her whole life, she has been unable to control her powers, isolating herself so as not to harm anyone else. Her bedroom is covered from the floor to the ceiling in ice and when she picks something up with her bare hands, it immediately freezes over. It’s this lack of control that creates the primary conflict for the film’s main story arc, but the first thing Elsa does when she reaches the mountains is build an elaborate ice palace, complete with spiraling staircases and giant swinging doors.

This moment doesn’t necessarily leave a huge stain on the story as a whole, but it’s a contrived set-up, existing as a means to give the other characters a location to reach and making moot the film’s previous rules. One late movie twist, that I unfortunately won’t be able to talk about in depth, only adds to the perplexing inconsistencies of a movie that would have been fantastic otherwise. After the true motivation of a certain character is revealed, it calls into question nearly all of the events that led to it. Writers, above all, need to ensure their characters do things that make sense and that they follow their own established set of rules. In these regards, “Frozen” fails miserably.

But there’s so much more to the film than those admittedly glaring blunders. Olaf, in particular, is a treat. With energetic voice work by the underappreciated Josh Gad, he shows up just in the nick of time, picking the movie up from its midway slump. He’s ever the optimist, smiles incessantly and never misses the opportunity to make a joke. He’s one of the most charming and hilarious Disney characters in quite some time. If that doesn’t sell it for you, “Frozen” is opened by a spectacular Mickey Mouse short that cleverly blends old school 2D black and white animation with the new colorful 3D visuals we’re accustomed to today. It alone is worth the price of admission, but the good news is that the movie that follows, while not a new Disney classic, is a pleasant experience in and of itself.

Frozen receives 3.5/5

Thursday
Nov212013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Last year’s smash hit, “The Hunger Games,” was of a quality similar to many smash hits in recent years: it was good, but not great. Despite a bevy of things it did well, there were a number of story issues and missed dramatic opportunities that were only made all the more apparent by the undeserved hype its fans were spreading. Its sequel, “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” fixes many of its predecessor’s mistakes. The drama is more potent, the story better structured and, though it eventually falls into more or less the same dragged-out rhythm of the previous film, the stakes are raised higher. The movie still doesn’t rank among some of the best this year has had to offer, but it’s a marked improvement and sets the stage for a promising final installment.

Since the last Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) have become celebrities. Their story of love has captured the hearts and minds of the people in their districts, much to the chagrin of President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Their actions have sparked a rebellion among the lower districts, which is seen as a threat to the Capitol. It’s now the 75th year of the Hunger Games and every 25 years, the Capitol has a special event, a quell, to celebrate and remember the Capitol’s victory over the people’s uprising all those years ago. This year, President Snow, in an effort to subdue the districts’ recent attitude change brought on by Katniss, announces that they will take previous winners of the Hunger Games and pit them against each other. Once again, Katniss finds herself in dire situations, but with the help of some as-of-yet unknown allies, things may begin to change.

If the original film was about anything, it was about our bloodlust, our desire to watch people destroy themselves and each other in an entertaining way. It may be an easy allegory given the destructive reality television personalities our society focuses on, but it’s also a truthful one. We’ve become so accepting of these things that it hardly fazes us anymore. “Catching Fire,” on the other hand, is a wake-up call. It’s about not standing for the status quo if that status quo is corrupt or evil. More specifically, it makes a connection between the perpetuation of fear by media figures. In the film, President Snow wants to keep his people docile and prevent an uprising through the use of manipulation and misinformation, knowing full well that fear is a powerful tool and strong suppressant. Comparisons to so called “news” networks like Fox News are easy to see and this is where the film finds its grounding. Its greatest strength is in its commentary.

Of course, that commentary isn’t exactly subtle. Not much about the film is. The art direction is also once again simultaneously fascinating and perplexing, with clashing schemes of drab, bleak colors in the slummy districts and bright, colorful decor in the extravagant Capitol. Although the colors and costumes are meant to distinguish between the poverty stricken and those who live lavishly, the distinction is too extreme. When one aspect of the film is realistic and grim while the other feels like a cartoon, it inadvertently gives itself a confused tone.

Where “Catching Fire” surpasses the original is in its emotionally charged story. The original had some great dramatic moments, but they felt isolated from the story as a whole. After young Rue died in a tremendously sad scene, she was quickly forgotten and the trauma such an event would have on Katniss was never fully explored. There were no dramatic ripples that carried throughout the entire film. “Catching Fire” is the opposite. Few individual moments have deep impact, but the product as a whole combines to create overarching emotion that builds steadily and doesn’t go away until the end credits begin to roll, and this is despite the inconsistent tone. “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” isn’t perfect and will no doubt be spoken of in hyperbole by its many supporters, but it’s nevertheless a step up in nearly every regard.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire receives 4/5

Friday
Nov082013

Thor: The Dark World

If you ask me, out of all the Marvel movies leading up to and extending past last year’s summer megahit “The Avengers,” 2011’s “Thor” is by far the weakest. While certainly a summer spectacle worthy of the Marvel name, the main character was, quite simply, kind of dull. Thor simply didn’t have the personality of someone like Iron Man or the altruistic morals of Captain America or even the unpredictable nature of The Hulk. When compared to some of our greatest superheroes like Batman or Spiderman, Thor didn’t stack up. While those characters had demons to wrestle, events from their lives that dramatically changed them forever, Thor was a “just because” fighter. His motivation never really extended past the knowledge that it was simply what he was supposed to do. Such thinness is boring and it made “Thor” the only Marvel movie in this “Avengers” canon that wasn’t recommendable. Its sequel, “Thor: The Dark World” fares slightly better than its predecessor, but many of the same problems pervade it. It’s safe to say that if you enjoyed “Thor,” you’ll enjoy this, but Thor nevertheless remains the most uninteresting character in Marvel’s current movie bag.

Thousands of years ago, Bor, the father or Odin (Anthony Hopkins), defeated a monstrous race of beings known as the Dark Elves. Led by Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), their goal was to reverse the state of the nine realms to a period before creation using a relic known as the Aether. Despite their defeat, Malekith escaped, waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike once again. The relic was then buried deep, in a place where hopefully nobody would ever find it. In present day, the alignment of the nine realms, known as the Convergence, is upon us. This alignment is causing vortexes to appear in the realms, one of which astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) stumbles upon. This leads her to the Aether, which manifests itself inside of her. Now Malekith is out to get it, but Thor, along with his untrustworthy brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), is going to attempt to stop him and save Jane.

One change in Thor’s character that is immediately recognizable in this film is that his childish wanting-to-fight attitude from the previous movie has been replaced with a more mature willing-to-fight attitude. Rather than taking pleasure in it, he sees battle as his duty, to protect the nine realms. A late scene speech confirms this. Furthermore, due to a couple of scenes that shall not spoiled, he’s facing some true emotional pain. Thus, there is more character development here than there ever was before. This is a welcome inclusion and helps make him more likable, more like someone we would want to cheer for rather than someone we’re supposed to. This by no means makes Thor someone worth watching, but it’s a step in the right direction and if the excellent foreboding final shot is any indication, there are some truly exciting things on the horizon for the muscular god.

But hope for future greatness is not relevant to this current product. There is still a lot of bombastic action, as is common in all superhero movies, but little reason to care, mainly due to a somewhat confusing central story, some grating comic relief side characters and a bland enemy. Kat Dennings, in particular, tries far too hard here, cracking jokes at every turn to the point of obnoxiousness, while the enemies are faceless drones with masks akin to the emotionless one Michael Myers wears in the “Halloween” films. Despite an interesting dual hero/villain role for Loki (that is, unfortunately, far too short to have much impact), there’s little to keep one’s interest here.

Where “Thor: The Dark World” really finds its inspiration is in its action heavy finale. It’s so exciting, you’ll find yourself caring about what’s happening, even if you don’t really care about why. Other superhero movies, including this year’s “Iron Man 3” and “Man of Steel,” went far too over-the-top with their endings. The action came so fast and heavy that it was difficult to not become numb to it. Due to the film’s set-up, the characters see themselves flying through multiple vortexes, constantly transporting from place to place and narrowly escaping disaster. This allows for a variety other similar films can’t afford and it keeps you on your toes because what happens next is likely to be different and unexpected.

“Thor: The Dark World” isn’t without other merits either. It has some mildly amusing humor and one absolutely terrific off-kilter cameo from another popular Marvel character, but the film as a whole is decidedly lackluster, and that’s even if you don’t take into account how the 3D glasses further dim an already visually dark movie. In the end, it really is a shame all of the film’s inspiration comes from its action rather than its story because the latter trumps the former every time. “Thor: The Dark World” is kind of like a Stairmaster work out machine. You’re technically taking steps up, but you’re not really going anywhere.

Thor: The Dark World receives 2.5/5

Thursday
Oct312013

About Time

We all wish we could go back in time. Remember that time you said something stupid and hurt someone’s feelings? Or that time you stumbled over your words while talking to the prettiest girl you’ve ever met? Or when tragedy struck a friend or family member? What if you could go back and do it all again, changing those moments for the better? That’s the premise behind “About Time,” the latest film from Richard Curtis, the writer and director of 2003’s romance hit, “Love Actually.” What’s explored here isn’t exactly new ground, but the way it’s handled is positively exquisite. If 2009’s “The Time Traveler’s Wife” is an example of how not to tackle similar themes, “About Time” is the exact opposite. It nails it to a degree few films that explore life and love do, making it one of the best and most emotionally affecting movies of the year.

Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) has just turned 21. Aside from the expectations the monumental birthday brings, his life seems pretty normal, but his father (Bill Nighy) is about to change it drastically. It turns out that all men in his family have had an extraordinary ability. They can actually go back in time. All it takes is a dark, secluded room and some concentration and they can be whisked off to any place they’re thinking of, with a couple caveats: they can’t go forward in time, only back, and they can only revisit places they’ve already been and change events they’ve already experienced. This unique ability gives the otherwise timid and introverted Tim a chance to try new things without consequence. Eventually, he ends up in London working a boring job at a law firm, but one night, he meets Mary (Rachel McAdams) and he immediately falls in love.

The story that follows is one of both utter joy and inescapable sadness. It’s one that explores the craziness of life and the hopelessness that one finds when they realize that some things simply can’t be changed. Even with this power, Tim finds that when one thing is fixed, another is broken. It’s a movie that acknowledges that life is messy and it sometimes isn’t going to play out the way you want it to, but it also stops to see its beauty. Throughout his time twisting journey, Tim realizes that happiness isn’t in fixing life’s stumbles, but in embracing them. But perhaps more than anything, he learns that the true key to happiness is simply in living and not taking for granted this wonderful and magical ride we’ve all been granted, in noticing the little things and not letting precious moments pass you by.

While these life lessons are hardly revelatory, they’re handled with the utmost care, turning what could easily be an overdose of cheese into something that’s truly beautiful and easy to embrace and understand. All but those who have led the easiest of lives will be able to connect to the raw emotion presented here. Much of this success comes from the technical expertise in its crafting. “About Time” is a beautiful film to watch, with one of its few downsides being an unnecessarily shaky camera. The camera is so uncomfortable wonky at times that it’s difficult to even see the emotion on the character’s faces, particularly in an early scene when Tim’s walking home after meeting Mary, his elation barely registering because of it. While such shakiness can add to a more hectic movie, it doesn’t fit this film’s generally calm demeanor.

But what really makes “About Time” work is its performances. Bill Nighy is as charming as ever and Domhnall Gleeson proves his chops after working in side roles in films like “Dredd” and “Harry Potter,” but it’s the lovely Rachel McAdams that really shines here. She’s one of the most likable and beautiful actresses working today, but she is normalized here. Her hair is occasionally off kilter, her dresses a bit nerdy and her overall beauty is toned down, but it’s her charisma that makes it work. When Tim runs into his first love, who by all accounts is a much prettier and physically desirable woman, one night in London and she invites him to her place, he turns her down and rushes back home to Mary. There’s an unexplainable connection he feels with her, but we get it. McAdams creates in Mary the girl all guys want to bring home to their parents.

“About Time” is admittedly a little rough around the edges, particularly in its clumsy handling of its numerous side characters like Tim’s perpetually unhappy playwright friend, Harry, played by the criminally underused Tom Hollander, but those rough edges are minor when compared to the joy that encompasses them. This film is relatable to anyone who has ever made a mistake they wish they could fix, anyone who stumbled over their words when trying to explain to their crush how much they cared for them and anyone who has lived through life’s sad inevitabilities. “About Time” may be too sentimental for some to handle, but the romantically inclined won’t want to miss it.

About Time receives 4.5/5

Friday
Oct252013

Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa

Most know what they’re getting into when they sit down to watch something with the infamous “Jackass” logo plastered on it: over-the-top and increasingly dangerous back-to-back stunts that have no connection to one another other than the jackasses performing them. In this sense, the three movies that were previously released aren’t your typical story driven events. So it may surprise you to know that “Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa” actually is. Sure, the story is thin, cliché, poorly written, horribly executed and all around uninvolving, but it’s there. On that level, “Bad Grandpa” fails miserably, but it would be foolish to think those who venture to the theater to see it are going for the story. They’re going for the inanity, the ridiculous situations the make-up heavy Johnny Knoxville can get himself into and on that front, it delivers.

The story is simple (or, perhaps more fittingly, simplistic). Knoxville plays Irving Zisman, an 86 year old man whose wife has just died. He’s thrilled because now, for the first time in many years, he’s a single man and can hit the town and try to pick up women. However, during his wife’s funeral, his daughter shows up and drops his grandson off. It turns out she’s heading to jail, so he is now responsible for young Billy, played by Jackson Nicoll. He doesn’t want this burden, so he sets off on a road trip with Billy to drop him off at his father’s place in North Carolina.

And thus starts a road trip so outlandish it makes Thelma & Louise’s journey look relatively normal in comparison. Irving and the little headache accompanying him shove his dead wife in the trunk of his car, head out to a Bingo event where Irving hits on every woman who passes and even get into some shenanigans at a children’s beauty pageant where Irving convincingly dresses Billy up in a dress and passes him off as a girl. These moments are scripted similar to the way any hidden camera show or mockumentary film is scripted: the two actors are in on the joke while those around them are blissfully ignorant. While the movie itself is wildly uneven, some of these individual moments land so well that many viewers will struggle to find the time to breathe in between each enthusiastic guffaw they produce. Furthermore, due to the unpredictable nature of the people they encounter, the two are required to stay on their toes and adapt to the situation, ad-libbing lines of dialogue that only someone with no shame could possibly say. Indeed, “Bad Grandpa” has moments of absolute hilarity.

But those moments are, sadly, interspersed between stretches of crushingly dull and horribly unfunny nonsense. Perhaps unsurprisingly, “Bad Grandpa” is at its best when Knoxville does what he does best: hurt himself. Although certainly tamer than the “Jackass” movies we’ve become familiar with, the film nevertheless contains enough physical jackass-ery to satiate the appetite of those who miss the group’s enthusiastic craziness. Knoxville’s ability to take physical punishment is again morbidly fascinating to watch, particularly in one scene involving an adjustable bed where his body is more or less folded in half.

What drags down “Bad Grandpa” the most isn’t its stretches of boredom, as even the best “Jackass” films have skits that don’t work, but rather its uninspired story. Irving Zisman has become such a well-known face to the “Jackass” faithful that a loose narrative isn’t necessary to string his antics along. Why not just go from skit to skit as is “Jackass” custom? It’s unfair to lob criticism at a movie that purposely has no structure like those films, but by forcing one in, it’s easy to pick apart that shoddy structure. By becoming more like a traditional film, “Bad Grandpa” loses some of its “Jackass” luster.

Further hurting “Bad Grandpa” are its dramatic shifts in visual quality—mostly due to the different types of hidden cameras that were needed to pull off these moments—and numerous breakings of the fourth wall. This isn’t a mockumentary like “Borat” where the person onscreen is aware he’s being filmed, so every time the characters look into the camera, it’s jarring, though to be fair, it doesn’t pull you out of the story like it would in another film because the story is so lousy anyway. But these problems don’t stop “Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa” from doling out at least three or four riotous laughs, though most perceptions of the film will rely on the viewer’s patience. Are the long stretches of unfunny filler material too boring to make this enjoyable? Or do those aforementioned riotous moments make up for it? Answers will vary wildly. As for me, I’m of the latter opinion. In terms of consistent laughs, it’s one of the most uneven films I’ve ever seen, but what it lacks in consistency, it makes up for with some truly inspired immaturity.

Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa receives 3/5